How to meet the challenges posed by population growth

A crowded area in Kampala, Uganda. Programs that help reduce demographic vulnerability are needed in least-developed regions. Photo by: weesam2010 / CC BY-NC-SA

Demography is not destiny, but population growth trends are crucially important to the future of developing countries already struggling to alleviate hunger, eliminate severe poverty, manage water scarcity, curb environmental degradation or prevent conflict.

Just as developing countries must prepare for the anticipated effects of climate change, they also need to recognize and confront the challenges associated with a rapidly growing population.

The Population Institute this week released a report looking at where demographic pressures are greatest. The report, “Demographic Vulnerability: Where population growth poses the greatest challenges,” is the first of its kind. It identifies and ranks the 20 countries facing the greatest demographic challenges with respect to hunger, poverty, water scarcity, environmental degradation and political instability, taking into account various factors affecting their ability to meet the needs of a growing population, like corruption, climate change and regional conflict.

The report found a lot of commonality in the challenges these countries face, but also some significant variances. Of the 20 most demographically vulnerable countries, most will double their population in the next 35 years, but three of them — South Sudan, Niger and Zambia — could easily triple their population. All of the 20 countries were ranked “high” or “severe” risk for hunger and political instability, and all but Iraq were ranked “high” or “severe” risk for poverty. Only two countries, however, were ranked as being at “severe” risk for water scarcity: Yemen and Afghanistan.

Rapid population growth is a “challenge multiplier,” the report finds. Unless their fertility rates fall faster than they are now, these countries’ progress in eliminating hunger, reducing severe poverty, minimizing environmental degradation and avoiding political instability will be slow. For countries with the greatest vulnerability and the least resilience, things could deteriorate significantly.

But it’s far from hopeless. The good news is, programs needed to reduce demographic vulnerability, such as family planning, yield multiple benefits and are relatively inexpensive. But they’re urgent. The need is widespread, and delays will be costly.

Many women in least-developed countries, particularly those living in remote areas, lack access to a full range of family planning and reproductive health services. Millennium Development Goal 5(b), ensuring universal access to reproductive health services by 2015, still needs to be met. The United Nations estimates there are 225 million women in developing countries who want to avoid a pregnancy but are not using a modern method of contraception.

We must also improve contraceptive options for existing users. For women with uncooperative husbands, access to male condoms may not be a practical or reliable means of contraception; female condoms or birth control pills may be far more effective. For women in remote areas who must walk many miles to reach the nearest family planning clinic, birth control pills may not be a good option; longer-acting alternatives are needed.

The latest “Adding It Up” report, published by the Guttmacher Institute and U.N. Population Fund, estimates it would cost an additional $5.3 billion a year to meet the contraceptive needs of 225 million women, while also improving contraceptive options for current users. That’s an exceedingly small price to pay for lowering maternal and child mortality along with fertility rates. It could go a long way toward slowing population growth and reducing demographic vulnerability.

Even for those who have access to contraceptives, we also need to overcome cultural and informational barriers to using them. There are disruptions in contraceptive supply, and they must be fixed. But demographic and health surveys show that only a small percentage of women cite cost or lack of physical access as their primary or proximate reason for nonuse.

More often, women cite other reasons, including male opposition, religious prohibition and fear of side effects. In many developing countries, a significant percentage of women believe that using pills, an IUD or long-acting “injectables” will make them sterile. In some areas of East Africa, many women believe condoms are “tainted” with the HIV virus.

Counseling and behavior change communication strategies, such as “social content soap operas,” can encourage couples to consider the benefits of birth spacing and limiting family size. Most importantly, the practice of child marriage must end.

Even if we achieve all this and fertility rates falls faster than projected, the population of these demographically vulnerable countries is still likely to grow for decades to come. Without more agricultural assistance, food security in many of these nations will likely deteriorate. Burundi already suffers from an acute shortage of arable land. Niger has proven highly susceptible to drought.

The population of Yemen, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, is likely to grow another 50 percent by 2050. Without additional investments in water conservation and infrastructure, its major cities, including Sanaa, could run out of water well before midcentury. Corruption and division in demographically vulnerable countries hurts economic growth and undermines government efforts to meet their growing populations’ needs. These countries need stronger civil society and more support in fighting corruption and healing ethnic and religious divides.

International development agencies and donor countries should be taking all this into account in setting their aid priorities. Emergency aid is important, but if we’re going to prevent future emergencies, we cannot ignore the long-term needs.

Fragile countries with rapidly growing populations require priority attention, but many of them today rank low on the priority list. David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy in this month’s Foreign Affairs pointed out that the “proportion of poor people living in fragile states is on the rise,” but fragile states receive only “38 percent of aid.”

Demographically vulnerable nations face a highly uncertain future, but again, demography is not destiny. If the development and aid communities pay greater attention to population projections and their implications, and if they reprioritize and increase aid levels accordingly, their outlooks will change.

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About the author

  • Robert Walker

    Robert Walker is the president of the Population Institute, where he directs the organization's advocacy and public education activities, including its work on issues related to health, economic development, sustainability and the environment. Prior to joining the Population Institute in February 2009, Walker was president of the Population Resource Center. He formerly was the executive director of the Common Cause Education Fund, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

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